From Brian Keogh in Los Angeles
Graeme McDowell doesn't need Mark O'Meara to tell him that Rory McIlroy is a superstar in the making.
And while he is reluctant to compare the Holywood teenager to Tiger Woods, he believes the hottest property in European golf can make his mark by dumping the world No 1 out of next week's WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.
Woods has until Friday to commit to the event and end his eight-month absence from the game following knee surgery. Barring any further withdrawals from the field, the 14-time Major winner is scheduled to meet McIlroy in Friday's third round and McDowell sees no reason why the Ulster sensation can't pull off a shock.
Preparing to playing just his second event of the year on a sponsor's invite in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, McDowell said: “Rory v Tiger? That would be the dream ticket. And I think he’d be a great bet. Tiger has shown that he is gettable in the early rounds and anything can happen in an 18 hole sprint. That’s what makes the match play such a great event.”
McIlroy is set to face stablemate Louis Oosthuizen in the first round in Tucson with McDowell scheduled to take on Masters winner Zach Johnson.
And while some sectors of the American media are sceptical about the McIlroy hype machine, McDowell has no doubt that his fellow Ulsterman is the real deal.
While the American scribes are still trying to assimilate Mark O'Meara's assertion that 19-year-old McIlroy is a better striker of the ball than Woods was at the same age, McDowell believes they are in for a pleasant surprise at Dove Mountain next week.
"You are always going to have your doubters," he said "But they aren’t going to doubt Rory for long. They will see next week that Rory is that good. And there are going to be no more doubters.
“No-one doubted Rory’s talent and it is great to see him finally getting the praise he deserves. It is fantastic and to be 16th in the world is a great achievement.
"I think the day Mark O’Meara made those comments. Rory beat him by 13 shots. Everyone looks good when they shoot 64. But obviously I played with Tiger a couple fo times. Tiger is phenomenal. I do agree that Rory is a fantastic striker of a golf ball. Is he as good as Tiger at that age? Maybe he is. I can’t make the comparison."
World No 37 McDowell smiles when he is informed that he is now regarded as the Ulster number two. But he believes that he can have a great career and win Major titles if he manages stay in McIlroy's slipstream.
McDowell said: “I am looking forward to seeing him next week. It is great for Irish golf. It is great for me. If I’m Ulster’s No 2, I have got to work hard.
“But if I can hang on to Rory’s coat tails for a couple of years I will be happy enough. I’m ten years older than him and he makes me feel old.
“Rory is one of my very good friends. I spend a lot of time with him and I think he is an extremely mature young man for a 19 year old.
“He hasn’t exactly burst onto the scene out here. He had a quiet six or seven months at the start of last year but I never doubted how good he was technically.
“Maybe there was a bit of a question mark over his putting early last season, but he seems to have rectified that and he’s playing fantastic.”
McDowell believes he has moved up a gear since he qualified for the Ryder Cup last year and has nothing to prove to anyone.
He said: “It hasn’t put any pressure on me. I have just proven to myself that I can perform under the microscope. It only gives me confidence.
“I know my game is getting better and better and I am continuing to work on the things that got me to where I am at right now.
“But I realise I have got to keep working hard. There are lots of great players around nowadays. You play badly for a second and 30 guys go past you in the world rankings.”
McDowell and Harrington are two of the biggest names in a Northern Trust field that features 30 of the world's top 50, including defending champion Phil Mickelson.
Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa, still just 17, is playing on a sponsor's invitation that many felt should have gone to McIlroy, who was turned down a few weeks before he won the Dubai Desert Classic.
Interest in the Japanese star is massive in his homeland as he prepares to tee it up on an invite in the Masters at Augusta National in April.
Organisers of the Northern Trust Open have been forced to extend the media centre at Riviera after receiving 100 applications for accreditation from the Japanese media compared to just 20 last year.